Earth Day was first observed on April 22, 1970, when an estimated 20 million people nationwide attended the inaugural event. Senator Gaylord Nelson promoted Earth Day, calling upon students to fight for environmental causes and oppose environmental degradation with the same energy that they displayed in opposing the Vietnam War.
In July 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established in response to the growing public demand for cleaner water, air, and land—its mission to protect the environment and public health. Earth Day also was the precursor of the largest grassroots environmental movement in U.S. history and the impetus for national legislation such as the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. By the twentieth anniversary of that event, more than 200 million people in 141 countries had participated in Earth Day celebrations.
At the turn of the twenty-first century, the EPA was announcing new requirements for improving air quality in national parks and wilderness areas and establishing regulations requiring more than 90 percent cleaner heavy-duty highway diesel engines and fuel.
See the special presentation Chronology of Selected Events in the Development of the American Conservation Movement in the collection The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920 to learn about milestones in U.S. efforts to preserve and protect the Earth. These efforts include the designation of some of America’s most majestic national parks such as Mt. Rainier, Yosemite, Acadia, and the Grand Canyon.
John Burroughs, John Muir, and Luis Agassiz Fuertes (at the outset of his career as the nation’s most notable ornithological painter since Audubon) were among the scientists, naturalists, and artists who produced an album documenting the 1899 Harriman Alaska Expedition. As such, they can be considered political and cultural progenitors of Earth Day. See also the Albert K. Fisher Papers—Fisher was a member of the Harriman Expedition from Meeting of Frontiers, a bilingual, multimedia English-Russian digital library that tells the story of the American exploration and settlement of the West, the parallel exploration and settlement of Siberia and the Russian Far East, and the meeting of the Russian-American frontier in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
- The collection The Evolution of the Early Conservation Movement, 1850-1920, demonstrates that works of art are integral to the legacy of the early conservation movement. Search this collection using the terms Thomas Moran or Currier & Ives for examples of such art.
- The American Environmental Photographs, 1891-1936: Images from the University of Chicago Library External collection documents natural environments, ecologies, and plant communities in the United States at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Its essay, “Ecology and the American Environment,” explores the collection that documents scientific concerns that helped lead to the current environmental movement.
- Mapping the National Parks documents the history, cultural aspects, and geological formations of areas that eventually became National Parks. The collection consists of approximately 200 maps dating from the 17th century to the present. Browse the Subject Index for a variety of maps; each map is also a primary source that tells the story of the region as well as of the park through the history of its mapping.
- See these Today in History pages to learn more about events in U.S. conservation history, and individuals whose intellectual or artistic legacy influenced the movement:
- To learn more about major environmental legislation currently before the U.S. Congress, search on environmental protection and conservation on Congress.gov. It is also possible to search for a bill by its number or its name. For example, search either under S. 134 or Gaylord Nelson Apostle Islands Stewardship Act to find a bill to direct the Secretary of the Interior to study whether the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore should be protected as a wilderness area. (Search in Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920 on the term Apostle Islands to see images of the area discussed in the legislation.)
- See the Earth Decade Reading List available through the Library’s Science Reading Room.
- The Library’s Science Reference Services Section develops Science Tracer Bullets, which are guides to the literature on topics of current interest. Search on the keyword environment to locate, for example, a Tracer Bullet on Biodiversity, or, for the budding environmental scientist, Environmental Science Projects. Similarly, the Division has created Selected Internet Resources—see their page on the environment.